It was a British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who theorized during the 17th century about what he called the “state of nature,” a world without government. Hobbs wrote: “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth … no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Americans tend to envision the semi-legendary Wild West when we think about anarchy: no effective government or police presence, just individuals taking their safety into their own hands with revolvers on their hips. Yet in today’s United Kingdom, handguns are for criminals only, and the only self-defense implement guaranteed not to get you sent to jail is a rape whistle. British citizens are discovering as a result that violent anarchy is possible no matter how big the government or how visible the police.
The United Kingdom tolerates (heavily regulated) long guns for sporting purposes, but it has done its best to thoroughly eradicate the presence of handguns from daily life. It’s not just a matter of disarming civilians; most police officers aren’t even allowed to carry. If you’ve spent any significant amount of time on this planet, though, you won’t be surprised that handguns are still present in British society—they’re just restricted to the criminal element now. The overwhelming majority of the law-abiding populace, including police, is disarmed and effectively helpless.
If you enjoy British detective shows, you may have noticed this shift toward depicting a world where only the criminals have guns. There are plotlines in the BBC series Luther that would make no sense in an American setting—a lone sniper terrorizing the entire city of London, a killer walking into an office and massacring employees with a hammer—that are now frighteningly plausible. Whenever things get dangerous, the cops have to hunker down and call in one of the elite units that actually gets to carry guns.
For your average British citizen, especially one living outside London, this may have seemed like a tolerable deal with the devil: Sure, you can’t defend yourself, but the violent crime rates are pretty low. However, it turns out that the loss of freedom wasn’t actually creating any obstacle to crime. In 2011, a wave of violent riots swept through London and into surrounding areas. It started as an act of protest, but it took on a tone of simple, adolescent lawlessness as it spread into the suburbs and towns. This was an excuse to terrorize innocents, knowing that the police were too overmatched to respond—and that the victims were sure to be unarmed.The United Kingdom tolerates (heavily regulated) long guns for sporting purposes, but it has done its best to thoroughly eradicate the presence of handguns from daily life.
It was at this point that many residents had to consider, maybe for the first time, how to defend themselves. A handgun was out of the question, but what about a knife? A Taser? Even just a bit of pepper spray?
No luck. The stance of British law is that if it can hurt someone, it’s not OK to carry. That the person might have deserved to be hurt because they were trying to rob you, or rape you, doesn’t make a difference.
Depressingly, nothing seems to have changed about this situation since 2011. An article published this week on the NRA-ILA site highlights a recent response on the UK’s national “Ask the Police” website about which articles are permitted to be carried in case of an attack. The answer is unequivocal and chilling: “The only fully legal self-defense product at the moment is a rape alarm.”
That’s all you can do if you’re being raped by an armed attacker. Whistle for the police. Once they get there, they’ll take cover and call the other police who actually have guns. Hopefully they will arrive before the criminal has skipped town, or before you and the responding officers are dead.
Come to think of it, though, we wonder if this response about the rape alarm was a bit too confident. If you whistled really loudly in an armed rapist’s ear and caused him hearing loss, couldn’t he sue you? Answer: Probably. Thomas Hobbes would find this baffling. The UK not only has a government, they have an excessive amount of it. But they’ve found a way to return to the “state of nature” nonetheless.